Am I allowed to say…? Naah, forget it. I was going to say while I found Leslie Neilsen‘s original Airplane performance amusing, I never laughed. At most I chuckled. Chortled? Neilsen obviously hasd that deadpan-manner thing down pat. Tens of millions (including Keith Olbermann) loved him for that. It made him into a comic legend in the realm of…well, his own. But let’s not go overboard.
For me “funny” Neilsen was a one-trick pony. He delivered the same clever but thin vibe, over and over. Serious, pre-Airplane Neilsen, however, was another matter. Watch him closely and you can almost (almost, I say) sense his loathing for some of the dialogue he was obliged to say. As David Zucker said in an 11.29 Hollywood Reporter tribute piece, he and Airplane partners Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams thought “serious” Neilsen “was hysterical…when we watched those movies, we laughed.”
And yet twelve years ago David Zucker was asked by an AV Club interviewer if it’s “frustrating” to see Nielsen regarded worldwide as a comic genius. “Well, yeah,” Zucker replied, because “everything guys like Leslie Nielsen say and do onscreen is put in from backstage. Everything’s being controlled from Houston. He doesn’t even flick a switch. He’s just up there in the capsule, and all he can do is act.
“All you have to do is watch him in anything else — Mr. Magoo or Repossessed. You know, all these people think, you know, Leslie Nielsen, that guy’s funny! Let’s get him for our movie! And then they have him trying to be funny, but he needs good jokes.”